If you stand quietly at the corner of Keystone Street and 52nd, turn your ear to the southwest, and wait until the traffic subsides, you’ll hear the ripple as the Monongahela joins the Allegheny forming the Ohio. Reach high on tip-toe, peek over the row houses toward the river, and the thick black plumes rising above the orange-red Bessemer glow will captivate your view. You may even see my grandfather making his way up Butler Street after a long day at the steel mill. Now slowly close your eyes and inhale deeply and you will smell the aroma of my childhood.
Sweet memories of my Polish grandfather and Croatian grandmother are linked to strong piquant odors that would dispel many, but keep me forever connected to them. The pungent sour smell of sauerkraut and salty Kielbasa, and the gaseous lingering odor of Brussels sprouts fuse with a thick cloud of cigarette smoke reminding me of many childhood visits to Keystone Street.
Although the smell of cigarette smoke practically makes me gag today, it also conjures a beautiful picture of my grandmother leaning from her second story window awaiting our arrival. She would wave and the dangling ash from her cigarette released and gently floated in the air. As the smoke swirled around her head, it danced the Polka in greeting, promising to cling with affection to my hair and clothes so I wouldn’t easily forget. I used to wonder why my mom always made us leave our winter coats in the car forcing us into the cold without cover, but when I became a mom and faced the endless amounts of laundry, it made complete sense.
The three by three foyer was hazy and as we ascended the stairs to their apartment, the banging of the screen door was a reminder that fresh air wasn’t welcome and would be waiting for us upon our return outside. The clouds parted as the six of us made our way to cheek-kiss our paternal relatives. My siblings and I never became smokers because second-hand smoking a pack a few times a year was enough. Thankfully, there were smells stronger than cigarette.
I’d fast-walk to the tiny kitchen, slide past my grandfather in his yellowed white sleeveless tank, and my nose would get a smoke break thanks to the commanding smell of cabbage. Always cabbage. Whether we were having Polish sausage, soft potato and cheese filled pierogi, and sauerkraut or my grandmother’s homemade meat filled stuffed cabbage known as Halupki, the star ingredient was always cabbage. I’d take a deep breath and quickly replace smoke with the tangy smells that tasted of their sweet, rich homeland.
As I settled onto the red cushioned chairs at the chrome-rimmed Formica table, I anxiously awaited my dad opening the fizzy purple pop so I could feel the sugary bubbles tickle my nose. The first sip was always the best. Sparkly bubbles going down as the effervescence consumed my nostrils. I was in pop paradise until one of my annoying brothers knocked over their drink causing a ruckus and all of the adults to reach for towels to begin the clean-up. I’ll always wonder why they didn’t guard that sweet memory of the first sip. My pop became soda when I moved to the Midwest, but every time a Fitz’s grape soda tickles my nose and the sweet flavor touches my tongue, I can feel my sweaty legs peeling away from the plastic chairs as I move to find my place on the couch.
If it was Christmas, I knew my stocking would be filled with red apples and juicy oranges. And after glances from my parents warning us not to complain about the gift of fruit, we would silently reach down into the toe and find the chocolate bells and foil-wrapped coins and quickly eat a few before one of the adults would remind us not to spoil Christmas dinner. I didn’t understand the significance then, but being Catholics, my grandparents were celebrating Saint Nicholas Day in their own way. I have my childhood stocking tucked away so one day I can fill it with fruit gold for my grandchildren.
My grandmother’s meals will forever reign in the prime position on my list of The Best Food I’ve Ever Eaten because they were delicious; but mostly because they were rich with childhood memories. Sometimes I simply long for a bit of ground pork dripping with tomato sauce or for a chewy flour dumpling as it rises to the top of the creamy pumpkin soup. I do my best to honor the food traditions that I was so privileged to experience. Every autumn I buy a small pie pumpkin and follow my grandmother’s simple pumpkin soup recipe that is stained with bits of orange and drips of milk. Kielbasa and pierogis with roasted potatoes and sauerkraut are a common meal that I serve and when one of my children requests this meal, they have no idea how happy it makes my childhood heart. The following day when the faint yet persistent cabbage odor remains in my kitchen, I smile remembering how the cabbage aroma was always strong enough to overpower the cigarette smoke on Keystone Street.
Jennifer Blanke has a BS in Elementary Education and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Lindenwood University where she is an editorial assistant for The Lindenwood Review. She is a mother, teacher, and writer in St. Louis, Missouri and has writing published in Mum Life Stories.